With intense determination an apparent "disabled" rugby player flys down the court, twisting and turning with amazing agility through defenders. The wheelchair seems to be an extension of his body, completely under his control, eyeing gaps in the defense and bursting through the holes like Reggie Bush on wheels. He pushes fiercely down the sideline but a defender is closing in fast and there is nowhere else to go. Realizing that no more maneuvers can be made, the player eyes his open teammate downcourt and tosses the ball in the air right before slamming into the defender. The collision lets loose an echoing metallic thud through the rafters of the gymnasium and the wheelchair comes off the ground tipping to the front edge of the armored device in a sudden balancing act. The rugby player seated in the chair anticipates what will come next, eyes wide wondering whether he will go crashing to the floor or slowly descend back to the safety and stability of his once upright position. Luckily for him the chair teeters back to stability. The able-bodied spectators let out a loud sigh of relief while the fellow rugby players on the sideline cheer halfheartedly wishing the collision had ended more spectacularly. All eyes go back to the ball soaring through the air as it bounces once… twice… and lands perfectly in the lap of the offensive player for a score. Elegant and graceful it seemed, luring the defense in only to squash their efforts with a perfectly played pass.
There in Atlanta Georgia, the Shepherd Classic was taking place. Quadriplegics of all ages, some traveling from as far as Michigan, had come together to compete in what has now become an Olympic sport. To the uneducated spectator, after five minutes of watching the game, everything that they once thought a quadriplegic to be is completely redefined. No longer do they believe that all quadriplegics are like Christopher Reeve, still and immobile in a power chair, but come to know that another breed of quadriplegics exist, the "super quad".
The super quad is a very lucky individual and is what almost all quadriplegics strive to be. It’s a quadriplegic who despite lack of function in the hands has been able to build up enough strength to make his loss of hand function almost completely unnoticeable. I am not a super quad and the fact of this statement became clearly apparent to me this past weekend when I traveled with the Charlotte rugby team to compete in my first rugby tournament.
My dad and I arrived at the hotel Friday night and as I looked around at my fellow quadriplegics I suddenly realized I was in a power chair and nobody else was. My chair of power has been great to me over the past couple of years but along with the use of this chair comes a stereotype of disability, basically that someone who uses a power chair is more disabled than someone who uses a manual chair. My dad gladly transferred me to my power assist manual and I immediately felt much better. But I quickly realized that the weekend was going to be no easy task mentally or physically. Once again in my constant efforts to push the limitations of my injury, I placed myself in a situation where everyone else around me was at a higher level than was. A level I have been reaching for since my injury and have been unable to grasp. To enjoy my experience at the tourney I would have to fully accept my current stage in life, not compare myself to all the stronger individuals around me, and simply put forth the best effort I possibly could. I knew I could put forth my best effort, but the acceptance and comparing issues would be a little bit more difficult.
At 8:30 that evening I was supposed to be classified. All rugby players are given a classification which is discerned according to your muscle strength and capabilities. The weakest players are given a .5 status while the stronger players are given a 3.5. In between the classes go up by half a point meaning a person can be a 1, a 1.5 and so on. Out of the four rugby players on the floor at a time the total point level cannot surpass eight. That way it’s not possible for four super quads to be on the floor at the same time although sometimes it’s hard to tell.
It was quite obvious I would be a .5 especially after being put in a rugby chair and not even being able to push myself into the room. Two women and a man sat in front of me and asked me to take my shirt off. Another task which my dad had to help me with. After he left the room they began to ask me a series of questions concerning my injury and such. Then we moved on to one of my favorite activities, muscle evaluations. If you cannot tell I’m being extremely sarcastic for I do not enjoy these episodes whatsoever.
The first muscle tested was my chest so the man grabbed my right arm and told me to reach across my body. Strangely to them the arm did not move. "I don’t see it, one of the women exclaimed. Several more times I tried, after each effort hearing, "I just don’t see it, it’s not working."
"Just give me my .5 status and let me out of here", I thought.
They slowly worked their way through the upper body each time seemingly in complete surprise that some muscle or other was not working. I finally heard some excitement in their voices when they got to my biceps and I showed them the gun show. After finishing up with my hands they decided they had tested enough to give me my level. As a rugby player you want them to give you the lowest level possible but I was kind of disappointed that they did not test my trunk muscles. Maybe it’s better off anyways being that it probably would have just frustrated me.
After they gave me my .5 classification I left the room frustrated and depressed. It doesn’t feel very good to be reminded of how weak I am and I could not help but compare myself to each player who entered the room after me. "What am I doing here?" I thought. "I just am not at this level", and besides it was the wheelchair world, a place where people took pride in there wheelchair abilities. I just spent months traveling across the country trying to get out of my wheelchair. At Projectwalk I saw people who probably could not push their wheelchairs much faster than I can but yet they were walking around the gym in walkers. I then realized that I was putting myself in two different worlds. One where people have accepted the current state of injuries and one where people haven’t, and there I was trying to put myself in both. Slowly I accepted the muscle evaluation knowing that it by no means defines who I am or where I’m going physically. I also know that just because a muscle does not fire during an evaluation does not mean it doesn’t work. Once again I am reminded why I don’t like those damn evals.
That night my mind was going 100 mph and I think I must have got a total of two hours of sleep. It was not a fun night. But first thing in the morning I awoke, metaphorically, and immediately got in my manual chair, something I rarely do first thing. Still on a high from my delirious state of unrest, I had a tremendous amount of energy but I knew this would soon come crashing down. Sure enough as soon as I ate breakfast I could barely keep my eyes open. Not even sure if I would be able to play, we headed to the gymnasium. Somehow, and in some way or another the atmosphere boosted my energy and I was not tired anymore. I suited up, got in the rugby chair, and began to warm up. I didn’t really expect to play much but it felt good to be a part of the team.
I sat on the sideline and slowly but surely watched our team get killed. When the third quarter came around I was informed that I would be going in. Nervousness struck me but I was excited to get out there on the floor and feel the intensity of a real game. I may not have been as strong as those guys but I had just as much heart and I was going to give it everything I had. It turns out that everything I had was not too bad and I actually managed to keep up with the action. I set some good picks and held my position pretty well I thought. A couple minutes later I was called off the court, proud of myself. Proud that I had faced my fears once again and pushed the limits refusing to accept the status quo. I’m going to strive to be whatever it is I wish even if all common sense tells me that I do not belong. I find no fulfillment in reaching for where I already am. Putting myself in situations such as this past weekend are not easy and it truly makes me question my identity, wondering where it is exactly I belong. But after facing these fears, the question of identity slowly fades away as I realize that no label can define me. I am nothing I think I am and I am nothing I think I’m not, I just am.
We played in two more games that day, losing both and I got playing time in each. I felt good about myself after each small stretch of court time because I know I gave it 100% and that’s all I can ask of myself. The following day we had two more games of which I played in one and made the decision to sit out the next. I once again felt somewhat down on myself for some reason but I cannot stop the fluctuation of emotions. Sometimes I know who I am and sometimes I don’t, and I am content with this fact. Overall the weekend was a success. I’ve developed a newfound love for the game of rugby and find it to be a graceful and action packed sport. I’m excited to see where the game may lead me in the future. This past weekend also has made me dedicate my efforts to being in a manual chair. I’m going to see to it that I push myself around much more so than using a joystick and eventually my chair of power will only be used on special occasions. I want to reach for this goal because very simply it brings me satisfaction and joy to reach for what I’ve yet to attain.